September 28, 2015 by Jean
Fall is country fair season in Maine; and, in a rural state, these harvest celebrations are major events. This past weekend, I spent a day with my friend Harriet at the one fair I never miss, the Common Ground Country Fair, sponsored by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). The fair is held on the organization’s property in the rural town of Unity, Maine – about two hours drive from my house.
It is a measure of my devotion to this fair that during my years teaching in Pennsylvania, I would leave for the airport after I got out of class on Friday afternoon and fly to Maine in the evening, spend all day Saturday at the fair, and then fly back to Pennsylvania on Sunday, in time to be back in the classroom first thing Monday morning!
The fair is, as the poster says, a celebration of “rural living” and rural traditions. For me, it is a place to connect with Maine’s agricultural and crafts culture. There are two tents of high-quality juried crafts, mostly by Maine artisans. My favorites are pottery (my house is full of vases, bowls and mugs purchased at the fair) and clothing. I try to buy one Maine-made article of clothing each year. Often these are vests or jackets that I can use to dress up a pair of slacks. But I may also buy a t-shirt or a hat. Two years ago, I found the booth of two sisters from Jackman, Maine (on the Quebec border) who make wonderfully warm and stylish felted wool hats; the hat I bought has provided me with more than my money’s worth of warmth and pleasure. The one piece of art in my garden, a hand-crafted kinetic sculpture made of rock and wrought iron by a Maine blacksmith, is also something I found at the fair. There are also tents for Native American crafts from local tribes, including spectacular sweetgrass baskets, and for folk arts (where you can learn about traditional crafts like rug hooking or braiding, turning wood, or building stone walls). And there are areas devoted to fiber arts and to products made by children and adolescents.
I didn’t buy an article of clothing this year, although I was sorely tempted by some gorgeous boiled wool vests and jackets that were out of my budget range. I did, however, make other purchases. In the agricultural products area, I bought my winter’s supply of Maine maple syrup from one of the many maple farmers’ booths, and I also bought a peony tuber for my new front garden from one of the two local seed companies at the fair. In the Maine enterprise area, I bought my annual supply of hand-crafted scented soaps from two different local companies whose soaps I’m particularly fond of. On the way out at the end of the day, I stopped at the farmers’ market by the gate to get a few ounces of delicious artisanal goat cheese from a local organic creamery.
Of course, there is much more to do at the fair than buy things. There are educational and entertainment programs throughout the weekend. Harriet and I got an early start in order to be on the fairgrounds in time for the morning keynote address by Bill Cullina, the director of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, about the experience of taking the garden organic. In the afternoon, we also attended a presentation by Lee Reich about using fruits in ornamental landscaping.
Between these two talks, we engaged in one of my favorite fair activities – eating. All the food here is fresh, local and organic … locavore heaven. For lunch, I headed straight to my favorite food vendor, Tuva Bakery of Lincolnville, Maine where I had whole wheat croissants filled with roasted red peppers and with pesto with cheese (both delicious). Harriet opted for a lamp kebab from a nearby vendor, along with a serving of Tuva’s vegetable-loaded focaccia. Later in the day, I indulged in a more wholesome version of some typical country fair junk food – fried dough (made with Maine-grown organic whole wheat flour) with organic toppings.
The food is an indicator of the ways that this fair is both like other country fairs and different from them. There is no glitzy midway here and no cotton candy. There is a children’s area with games and face-painting and a children’s parade that winds its way through the fairgrounds twice a day. (This used to be called the “Children’s Vegetable Parade,” with the participants dressed up as carrots and radishes and pumpkins; but this year it seemed to be more of a “Children’s Pollinator Parade,” with lots of bee and butterfly costumes.) There are animals, large and small to look at, horse shows, rides in horse-drawn wagons, and oxen pulls. One of the crowd favorites is the demonstration of border collie sheepdogs at work.
Near the end of the day, Harriet and I made our way to the most traditional of country fair events, the exhibit of prize-winning fruits, vegetables, flower arrangements, and preserves. I especially enjoy seeing all the amazing varieties of pumpkins and potatoes, heirloom tomatoes and dried beans. Someday, I’m going to cook some tiger’s eye beans, to find out if they taste as delicious as they are gorgeous to look at.
The Common Ground Country Fair is a celebration of simple living as well as of rural living. In a complex technological world, it helps to keep me grounded. I have vivid memories of flying to Maine for the fair in September, 2001, just a few days after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. The airports had just reopened, and featured hours-long security lines and almost-empty planes. The fair that year was a particularly reassuring reminder that, even in the midst of momentous human tragedy, the earth continues to revolve around the sun, the seasons turn, and people sow and reap and live and love.
I’m already eagerly anticipating next year’s fair.